Face Off Theatre Company is only in its third season as part of Kalamazoo’s Black Arts and Cultural Center, but its unwavering commitment to excellence is clear. By consistently producing powerfully relevant and necessary work that no one else in the region is doing, they’re raising important questions and dialogue about race in America — primarily generated by people of color. And it’s perhaps the only company in the state fully committed to this work.
Their latest offering, The Brothers Size, by Tarell Alvin McCraney — the 2013 MacArthur genius award recipient who won the 2016 Best Screenplay Oscar for Best Picture winner Moonlight — is no exception to Face Off’s streak of ambitious, excellent shows.
First produced 10 years ago, when McCraney was only 27, it’s part of a trilogy set in the Louisiana bayou and shot through with West African mythology and poetic language that’s rhythmic, real and focused on relationships.
Here, it’s brothers, blood and beyond. Each of the three characters in this play is named for the orisha (deities) of Yoruba (a religion primarily found in Nigeria), and embody their elements in both human and mystical ways. Ogun is earthy and stable, weighed down by the worry and grief of being older brother to Oshoosi, the free spirit and dreamer who’s recently been released from prison for a trumped-up drug charge where he met Elegba, the lusty, mischievous trickster. Through their ordinary, often mundane actions, they fight, argue, spontaneously dance and sing, play games, and ultimately express genuine tenderness for each other that transcends the justified fear that underpins their experience.
Though the subtext of this play is a critique of one of the most horrifying injustices and examples of institutionalized racism in the United States — the exorbitant and disproportionate number of black men incarcerated in this country and its devastating cultural and personal effects — the show is beautiful. In no way a polemic, it is ultimately about love and liberation amid insurmountable obstacle.
Director Bianca Washington breathes life into this gorgeous script with an excellent cast, extraordinary use of space, and very simple technical elements that help elicit the immediacy, intimacy and raw emotion that make these characters and their circumstances come alive.
Duane Shabazz plays a solid Ogun whose mantra is “This Road is Rough.” He fully embodies the big brother archetype, and his range of emotion is immense. Shon Powell is a dynamic, kinetic Oshoosi and matches Shabazz’s emotional intensity with a younger brother’s innocent, yet misguided spiritedness. And Oliverliski Murphy, Jr. captures the impish complexity of Elegba, a catalyst who embodies both the light and the dark. Together their timing and rhythm are impeccable, their dialogue and physical interactions easy and natural. What they’re doing doesn’t feel like acting; to witness this show feels like being a fly on the wall of very honest, deep, emotional exchanges between brothers.
This is largely because of Washington’s direction and the many ways she brings the actors and the action in contact with the audience. They wend their way through the aisles and utilize downstage spaces that are literally down from the stage and so close to the front row of seats, those of us sitting there sense the heat, moisture and cologne emanating from the actors’ bodies. They so completely transform the humble space of downtown Kalamazoo’s First Congregational Church basement and make the audience part of their world, it’s practically disorienting when the house lights come up.
But return and readjust to the world beyond the elegantly crafted one in The Brothers Size we must, albeit moved for having the privilege of bearing witness to it.
The Brothers Size
Face Off Theatre